‘I am not a Kanaka or a N____’: slave pasts and kidnapped men in the Pacific
Albert Messiah, alias Arthur Fredrick Augustus Plantagenet Messiah, is an enigma, yet somebody that history records enough about to beg many questions and reveal some answers about slavery and associated questions of freedom, ‘blackness’ and racism in Australian history.
A man of African origin from the small Caribbean island of Antigua, formerly a slave society producing sugar, Messiah went to sea as a ship’s cook and sailed to the UK. Then, after jumping ship in Tasmania, he worked on Pacific Labour ‘recruitment’ voyages, the industry that, often by trickery and deceit or worse, found men in the Pacific Islands and took them to Queensland’s sugar plantations. In an industry often likened to the Atlantic slave trade—just about stamped out by this time, though enslaved people were not yet emancipated in Brazil—he was one of many men of African origin who worked in this role, but he was certainly the one who left the biggest impact.
Aboard the labour ship Hopeful in 1884, by Messiah’s account things turned deadly: men and women from New Guinea were kidnapped, and those who resisted murdered, as the ship filled its hold with workers for Queensland. Back in Australia he reported what he had seen, setting off a chain of events that would lead to several hundred men and women being returned to their islands and the Hopeful’s crew sent to jail, two condemned to death. It created a scandal: ‘white’ men were very rarely sentenced to hang on the words of a ‘black’ man.
If Messiah was, as he always claimed, born in the Caribbean island of Antigua, then he never experienced the crushing chattel slavery of the West Indies first-hand, being born in the years after emancipation. By choosing seafaring as a profession, he found a way to maximise his spatial freedom. By all accounts, therefore, his biography is not one that should fixate on the likely enslaved status of his parents and grandparents but rather on his own achievements. Yet adding this context back into an account of his life reveals much, as it surely influenced what occurred in Australia, as too it utterly transformed what those in the Australian colonies assumed about him.
Emma’s paper will explore what reading slave history back into black seamen’s lives within the Pacific Labour arena reveals. In Messiah’s case it underscores his allegation that people arriving onboard the Hopeful were victims of a crime against humanity, just as his own forebears had been. That he would make these assertations at great cost to himself, all the while being forced to repeat that his dark skin did not make him either a Pacific Islander or an Indigenous Australian but a citizen of the British Empire, casts new light on accusations of slavery in the Queensland labour trade.
This talk is part of the Western Australian Legacies of British Slavery project, being undertaken in collaboration with the National Centre of Biography.
* The talk will commence at 3 pm AEST (12 pm AWST) and go for about an hour.